Since the Houthi’s constitutional declaration of February 7, 2015, media reports on Yemen have been dominated by the political crisis and its repercussions in Sanaa. But, amid security concerns and the closing of various Western embassies, Yemen’s youth are continuing their struggle for the rule of law, and a government that protects civil rights and human dignity.
Having risen to power and taken the capital by force in September 2014, the Houthis have slowly undermined the state and are now ruling by coercion. On February 11, the fourth anniversary of the “Youth Revolution,” which began in 2011, people took to the streets to peacefully voice their rejection of the Houthi “coup” and continue the struggle for political change.
These protests were organized by a wide array of organizations from different political backgrounds, including the socialist party and members of Islah, which is largely made up of Muslim Brotherhood supporters.
One particular group, which has gained momentum in the previous months, is the Rafdh (“rejection”) movement. The group brings together students, human rights activists, independent youth protesters, and the “free Islahis.” According to Khaled Qassem, a researcher on youth in Yemeni political parties, the “free Islahis” do not coordinate with the Islah leadership. In contrast to young Islahis, Qassem believes Islah’s leadership is worried about repression and prefers not to mobilize against the Houthis.
The Rafdh movement emerged in December 2014 as a reaction to the Houthi’s armed presence in Sanaa. The group has mobilized thousands of supporters around a slogan rejecting militias in the capital and calling for participation in a peaceful political process.
Trying to hijack the anti-coup movement, the Houthis also called for protests on February 11. Holding up their slogan,”Death to America, death to Israel, curse upon the jews, victory to Islam,” and broadcasting their messages through speakers mounted on cars, the Houthis entered the peaceful demonstrations. “They were shouting against ISIS and Tawakkol Karman [The Yemeni Nobel Peace Prize Laureate and member of the Islah party],” one youth protester explained to me.
The Houthi protesters employed intimidation strategies such as violence and arrests. Youth who participated in the protests said the Houthis used both soldiers and non-uniformed people to repress the movement.
One protester, a PhD Student from Sanaa University, participated in the demonstration organized by the socialist party. The socialists demand a republic and reject a monarchical government – many believe the Houthis will re-establish the Imamate, which ruled Yemen before 1962. “They tried to disperse us with cars, Janbiyas [the traditional Yemeni dagger] and sometimes weapons. I saw one of them take out his gun, so I went to him and told him not to shoot. They threatened us, told us that the girls should go home, that it is immoral for them to protest,” the student said.
According to a former youth delegate to the National Dialogue Conference (NDC), the Houthis tried to prevent the February 11 protests by blocking main roads, where protests had been organized in the past. “But people made new places!,” he said, showing me pictures of the demonstrations in various parts of the city. “People are not scared!” He explained that all the groups participating in the protest movement agreed not to erect camps in the streets.
The Houthis have been more aggressively repressing popular dissent since January 2015. After the resignation of President Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi on January 22, young activists were arrested after they went onto the street to protest the Houthis’ unilateral grab for power. The Houthis have also cracked down on the media, arresting and kidnapping journalists who have been critical of their actions.
Youth activists are scared of Houthi rule. “If we don’t stop them, they will ruin our future” one young activist said. A common theme among the youth is that the Houthis will throw the country back into the Middle Ages. Many compare the Zaydi Houthis’ attitudes to that of al-Qaeda, fearing that citizen’s rights will not be guaranteed and personal freedoms will be restricted. “They should know that they can live with us, but they can’t force their creed on us!,” the young activist continued.
Until September 2014, the Houthis were able to attract much popular support. They criticized the government for corruption and lack of transparency. Their demand for economic and political reform was echoed by wide swaths of the population. But once the group installed itself in the capital, it started making mistakes. “They were in a very good position, then everything just dropped. They lost something every day,” explained the NDC delegate. Similarly, another young activist observed that “they [the Houthis] act like they own the people, that they have the right to treat the people however they want, they are rude.” He added, “the Houthis are still young and reckless. Young things are stubborn.”
Since Yemen’s youth activists first took to the streets four years ago, their main demands have not been addressed. Ali Abdullah Saleh is no longer President – one of the core demands of the youth revolution. But the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) initiative has enabled the former president to remain in the country. Saleh is still involved in Yemeni politics, and many believe he continues to pull strings in the background, making a smooth transition impossible.
Since the beginning of the transitional period in November 2011, the living conditions of ordinary people have not improved. Instead, the economy has deteriorated, corruption within government institutions remains rampant, reforms have not been implemented, and unemployment remains high. In fact, Yemen is facing a dire humanitarian crisis of extreme proportions. Oxfam released a statement in January 2014 stating that 16 Million Yemenis are in need of humanitarian assistance, and that “ten million Yemenis do not have enough to eat, including 850,000 acutely malnourished children. Millions have no clean water and are unable to access basic healthcare services.”
Increasingly isolated, the Houthis face challenges that will prove impossible to solve, including a deteriorating economic situation. The strained government budget will make it difficult for the Houthis to continue paying salaries to sustain the little stability that remains. Given the current political situation, there is little hope for improvement. On February 10, the U.S. Embassy along with the French and British Embassies closed their doors and evacuated personnel amidst mounting security concerns. “It is bad that they left, but it put the Houthis in the corner,” said the NDC delegate.
Hopefully, the Houthis will come to understand the scale of the challenges ahead for Yemen and learn to compromise with other political factions, in order to move the country’s political process forward.